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Nomad

 

2269

It was a constant source of amazement to Captain James T. Kirk that Starfleet Command, with all its vast technological resources, could not design a functional, comfortable formal dress uniform. The one in which he was currently attired fit him like a straitjacket. He knew the tightness had to be attributed to the cut of the clothing, since he had not gained any weight recently--or, at least, he hoped he hadn't.

Kirk wandered distractedly around the ballroom, quietly nursing his drink. He hated these formal receptions, and this function on Starbase 11 to inaugurate the Romulan-Klingon Alliance conference was no exception. Around him in the opulent splendor of the great hall were gathered dignitaries and ambassadors from myriad planets in the Federation, many of whom were inflated with an unctuous air of self-importance. And there were almost as many opinions concerning the alliance problem as there were officials.

The Federation was alarmed over the recent strengthening of the bond between the Klingons and the Romulans. Kirk had seen intelligence reports indicating the Empires were expanding territories behind their respective treaty zones. If this expansion was carried to its limits, the Federation would be completely encircled by hostile territory--not a very desirable position to be in. Some of the member delegates felt that Starfleet should step up patrols in the regions near the boundaries and called for an escalation in the construction of starships. Others held that the reports were exaggerated. They did not want to risk antagonizing the two Empires over a tempest in a teapot. And there were even a few extremists who believed the only course was to take direct counter-measures--even at the risk of intergalactic war. It was a delicate situation, and Kirk's role in the proceedings was as a member of a military advisory board. It was hoped that his experience--along with the experience of the other starship commanders on the panel--would assist the delegates in arriving at a sound decision. As a man accustomed to excitement in his everyday life, he longed to be back on the bridge of the Enterprise, where at least he didn't feel like a fish out of water.

He fiddled with his stiff collar. "Damn!" he said aloud. "This thing is extra tight tonight!" That, coupled with the oppressive stuffiness of the huge chamber, made him decidedly uncomfortable. He was hot--beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead, and he also realized he was slightly nauseous.

A tight frown creased his features. He had really been feeling the strain of command lately, and McCoy had been riding him to take it easy. Maybe he did need a rest. He shrugged mentally. Cancel that; it would have to wait until the conclusion of the conference.

Kirk was about to make a surreptitious retreat to a cooler area when his eye fell on two figures standing near the center of the room. One of them--a stocky, balding, middle-aged man with the look of an athlete slightly gone to paunch--was Commodore Josť I. Mendez, commander of Starbase 11 and ostensibly their host. The other was a tall, stately Vulcan in official robes, a commanding figure whose dignified bearing made him the object of many admiring glances. Ambassador Sarek was the first to notice Kirk as he wended his way through the crowd to exchange pleasantries.

"Greetings, Captain Kirk," began Spock's father. "It is a decided pleasure to see you again."

"Ambassador Sarek, it is always an honor and a privilege. Josť, nice to see you again," Kirk said.

A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him. He found that he did not feel at all well. He was now perspiring freely; his mouth was as dry as cotton, and the left side of his face was numb.

It must have shown.

"Jim, are you all right?" Mendez queried, frowning. "No offense, but you look like hell."

"Indeed, you are extremely pale, Captain," Sarek added.

"To tell the truth, gentlemen, I feel terrible," Kirk mumbled thickly. His tongue felt swollen. Suddenly, his entire body was trembling. The dizziness was much worse; he abruptly lost his sense of balance. And it was not his imagination. The left side of his face was slack, devoid of feeling, and the numbness seemed to be spreading throughout his body. He opened his mouth to cry for help, but could only manage an obscene sound like the bellow of a wounded animal. Horrified, Kirk realized that he had uttered that uncouth, unintelligible noise. He staggered forward a few steps, then fell heavily to the floor. As he went down, one of his flailing hands grabbed a tablecloth for support, and he brought down a mountain of silverware, crystal, and exotic foodstuffs with him. A woman screamed. The crowd began to murmur in shock and horror and pressed in close for a better view.

Kirk writhed in convulsions on the floor as Mendez and Sarek tried to restrain him. He was screaming, gibbering; meaningless shrieking sounds issued from his throat. A sea of faces swam before his eyes: Sarek, Mendez, Andorians, Tellarites, Capellans. And at the edge of his vision, he thought he saw the face of a beautiful woman, a familiar face staring at him with more than casual interest. He felt himself blacking out.

"A doctor, for God's sake, get a doctor!" Mendez seemed to be shouting from miles away, from space itself. A comfortable blanket of oblivion settled over Kirk.

The last sound he heard as the world winked out was Sarek whispering urgently to Mendez.

"We require a physician immediately, Commodore. I believe Captain Kirk is dying!"

*****

The rec room of the U.S.S. Enterprise was at full muster that night. There was something special in the air; it was one of those exceedingly rare occasions when Mister Spock had agreed to a public performance with his Vulcan lyrette. He had consented, but only after a prodigious amount of arm-twisting by one Lieutenant Uhura, who also stipulated that he accompany her on several ballads. How the lovely communications officer managed to arrange these appearances had to be one of the Nine Mysteries of the Galaxy, although it was common knowledge that Uhura could charm the stars out of the sky.

It didn't really matter to the crew, at any rate. They thoroughly enjoyed the performances. It was the only time they ever saw their first officer truly relax, let down his hair and become more Human. As Spock's masterly fingers danced over the strings of his exotic instrument and he immersed himself in the music, the face that was usually hidden behind an expressionless, stoic mask became animated, shining with a glow of inner peace. A faint ghost of a smile, the most he would ever allow, quirked the corners of his mouth. It seemed as though Spock was thoroughly enjoying himself, too, although the stolid Vulcan would deny any such thing.

Spock and Uhura finished their impromptu concert to resounding applause. The Vulcan carefully laid aside his harp. He stood, flexing his fingers for a few seconds, then strode over to a table where Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott held court with Lieutenant Sulu and Ensign Chekov. Uhura glanced in their direction, gesturing to Sulu that she'd be over as soon as she talked to a friend she'd spotted at a rear table.

The chief engineer unfolded what looked like a long-sleeved pullover shirt made of fine mesh metal. Spock's right eyebrow canted with interest.

"...and it works on the same principle as the deflector grid on the Enterprise's primary hull saucer," Scotty was explaining. "The vest's duratronium mesh network absorbs th' energy blast of a phaser, disruptor, or what have ye, and dissipates th' charge before it kin touch the wearer's body." He caught sight of the first officer.

"Ah. Mister Spock! Pull up a seat. I was just tellin' th' young lads here about my new contraption."

"Mister Scott has designed a 'phaser-proof' deflector vest," Sulu put in as Spock eased himself into a contoured lounger chair.

"A vwery practical invwention, if it works," a skeptical Chekov added.

"Aye, it works all right, laddie," the Scotsman bristled, somewhat miffed. "I've lab-tested it on myself, and felt nary a tingle from a phaser-two pistol set on force seven!"

This elicited a whistle from Sulu, and Spock's eyebrow escalated another couple of notches. The Vulcan took the rig and examined it with clinical interest, turning it over and over in his hands.

"Fascinating. Your invention would be a formidable addition to Starfleet Security armament, Mister Scott. Very lightweight, also. I assume this is the power pack?" He indicated a flat box approximately the size of a communicator clipped to the shirt in an area that would be near the small of the wearer's back.

"Aye. And the beauty part is thot it's powered by a cleavage sliver from a fused dilithium crystal. On a device that small, a chip the size of yer thumbnail will give ye unlimited power for a thousand years!"

Chekov sighed and downed a sip of his vodka. "I must admit, Mister Scott, I'm impressed. It's too bad the Russians didn't invent it first!"

There was general laughter at that comment. Spock was about to question the engineer again when a commotion by the door diverted his attention. Doctor Leonard McCoy had literally burst into the room. He was in a state of extreme agitation, his bright blue eyes darting wildly about. When he spied the object of his frantic search, he made a beeline across the floor, almost at a dead run.

"Spock! Spock!" he rasped. "C'mon! You and I--we've gotta beam down to Starbase! Medical emergency!"

Spock frowned. "Doctor McCoy, I fail to see why my presence is required for this event. Since you are the physician--"

"Damn it, Spock! It's Jim!"

The science officer bolted up from his chair, somewhat too quickly for Vulcan decorum. He turned to Scott. "You are in command until our return, Engineer. Doctor, let us make haste."

All eyes in the now-silent rec room followed the two men as they exited.

They had never seen the Vulcan move more swiftly.

*****

"A stroke!!" McCoy exploded. "But that--that's impossible! I gave Jim a complete physical just before the conference! He was a little run down, but in excellent condition otherwise, as always! There was no evidence of..."

"Now, Doctor McCoy, please calm yourself. No one's blaming you." Doctor Michael Sifrin, Chief Surgeon of Starbase 11, was in his late thirties. A tall, slim man with thick, black, curly hair, he possessed the kind of finely- honed, almost classically handsome features most men would sell their souls for. He appraised his two visitors, the volatile, distraught physician and the preternaturally calm Vulcan. They would have to be told...

"These things can happen suddenly, especially to someone under as much pressure as a starship captain," he continued carefully. "If it weren't for the quick thinking of the commodore and your father, Mister Spock, Captain Kirk would now be dead."

Spock's eyes flickered. "We are grateful to them both, Doctor, I must thank them...later."

"Can we see him now?" McCoy pleaded.

Sifrin sighed. "He's stable now, and resting comfortably. I'd rather he wasn't disturbed. And Doctor McCoy..." He trailed off momentarily. "It isn't pretty."

"Damn it, I'm a doctor, too!" McCoy ranted. "Let's go!"

Sifrin had not been exaggerating.

James T. Kirk lay sprawled on the spartan medical cot. His face was as pale and chalky as the ghost moons of Minarif IV; the left side looked like a melted candle, slack, distorted. Thin sheets and hospital garb could not disguise the grotesque, twisted posture of his athletic body. His rigid limbs were cramped into a fetal position. His vital signs on the diagnostic panel were stable. But it was the brain scan display that captured McCoy's attention.

It showed an almost flat line with infrequent spikes.

"My God! No!" McCoy groaned. He was Kirk's personal physician, and one of his primary responsibilities as Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise was the maintenance of her captain's physical, mental and emotional health. Now it seemed he had failed in that task. That terrible onus suddenly came crashing down on his shoulders with all its ponderous weight.

James T. Kirk had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. In a split second of agony, his brain had been irreparably damaged, leaving him a mental vegetable. McCoy felt responsible for his best friend's condition. His face was a mask of abject grief, of self-recrimination and guilt.

Spock's face was simply a mask, cold, impassive. Yet Kirk was more than his best friend. They were brothers of the cosmos, two men who were forced to remain apart from others, one because of military rank, the other because genetics had made him an alien even on his home planet. Their uniqueness was a common bond that drew them together.

Now the Vulcan felt alone, more terribly alone than he had in his entire life.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen," Sifrin finally broke the awkward silence. "He has suffered irreversible cerebral damage. He'll live, but he'll be totally paralyzed save for his eyes and some facial muscles. He cannot talk. He can make sounds, but he can't verbalize. I doubt that he'll recognize you. I doubt that he's even aware of his own existence. It's a miracle he's alive at all."

McCoy turned away, his eyes threatening to brim over with tears. He struggled for composure. "My fault, my fault," he muttered. "I should have seen it coming somehow..."

Spock continued to stare at his friend, trying to comprehend the catastrophe that had occurred. At that precise second, Kirk's eyes snapped open. They showed dead white, rolling uncontrollably. It seemed to Spock that his captain was making a supreme effort to control their chaotic movement.

Suddenly, those eyes swam into focus, and Kirk and the Vulcan locked gazes. Spock almost staggered, feeling as if he had been jolted by a phaser stun. Never had he seen such a look of fear and panic, of despair. But there was something else. As Kirk's face contorted, the expression turned to one of desperation. Those eyes pleaded with him. Help me, Spock, they seemed to say.

Spock moved toward the stasis chamber. Sifrin quickly interposed himself between the Vulcan and the door. "Just what do you think you're doing, Spock?"

"Doctor, I believe the captain recognized me. He is in distress, and I would like to be with him for a few minutes to see if I can calm him."

"And as his physician, I forbid it! Look at his brain scan! He can't recognize you!" The tone softened. "I'm afraid you're just a victim of wishful thinking. At any rate, he won't be ready for visitors for at least another day. I suggest you two leave now so he can rest."

A frantic, inarticulate moaning issued from the cubicle. Kirk screamed, his expression now quite definitely one of blind panic.

"Now look at what you've done! Gentlemen, for his sake, I must insist that you leave at once!"

"Christ! I can't take any more of this!" McCoy burst out. "C'mon, Spock! We can't do anything for Jim. No one can. Let's at least let him rest!"

Spock glanced sharply at the chief medical officer. "Very well." He flipped open his communicator, a frown creasing his hawklike features. "Spock to Enterprise."

"Scott here."

"Two to beam up, Mister Scott."

"Aye, sir." Scotty did not inquire about the state of the captain's health. Something in the tone of the Vulcan's voice told him the news wasn't good.

As the room dissolved around them, Spock took one last look into the cubicle. Something was nagging at him in the back of his mind. He would not rest until he discovered what it was.

*****

James Kirk struggled in the grip of a nightmare. What was wrong with him? He had heard and understood every word of the conversation between Spock, McCoy and Sifrin. Even though he could only move his eyes and the right side of his face, there was nothing the matter with his mind. Yet the starbase surgeon insisted his brain had been utterly destroyed. He had tried to tell Spock somehow, and when the Vulcan turned to leave, he had attempted to call to him, but could only muster a keening banshee wail. For a man as physically active as he had been, the prospect of existence as a Human vegetable was like a living death. If someone were to choose a Hell for James T. Kirk, this had to be it.

He heard the voices then, filtering into his cell as they argued. One of them was Sifrin's.

"--don't know what you've done to me! Damn it! I can't even control my own will anymore unless you allow it! The terrible things I've done for you because you've made me want you. And God..." He paused, his voice becoming a husky groan of torment. "God, how you've made me want you! It's like a hunger I can't satisfy! You've poisoned my mind, damn you! I'd kill for you, just to make you happy!"

"Yes, Michael." The woman's voice was almost a purr, seductive, provocative, yet edged with a silky deadliness. "I know you'd kill for me. And you will, if and when that time comes."

They were just outside his door now, and Kirk realized that the woman's voice was familiar, maddeningly familiar.

"Right now, I want you to go in there and clamp on the restraints on the great Captain James T. Kirk," she continued. "You're going to give him a counter injection, and I don't need him trying to make a break for it. And you'll do it, Michael. Because if you don't, your bed will be awfully cold and lonely tonight."

"Don't taunt me like that!" Sifrin pleaded, sounding almost like a small boy trying to avoid a spanking. "I'll do anything you say--and you know it!"

The door slid open. Sifrin moved briskly, strapping down Kirk's wrists and ankles, securing the bonds around his chest and waist. The handsome face, so calm and composed before, now bore an expression of anguish. His voice was tortured as he spoke again.

"Captain, believe me--I don't wish to be a party to this! I can't help myself. She's forcing me to..."

The woman stepped just inside the door, still clinging to the shadows. "Michael, shut up! Just give him the damned injection!"

A hypospray hissed against Kirk's arm. Miraculously, feeling rapidly coursed back through his nervous system. The rock-hard tension in his muscles eased. He felt his vocal cords loosen, and he tentatively cleared his throat.

"Ahhh...ummmmm...w-what in h-hell is going on around-d here?"

"The drug I slipped into your drink is a derivative of psylocine-B, which is used to treat neuro-cerebral disorders," she said. "In this form, however, certain impurities are not filtered out, and the subject exhibits all the symptoms of a massive stroke. Only an injection of formax can counteract its effects."

She was tall and lithe, her magnificent form clad in a long, clinging robe of an iridescent, metallic material. Her beautiful face was framed by crisp auburn hair. Only the expression of insane, bitter hatred reflected in her glittering slate eyes marred her loveliness.

"Janice!" Kirk croaked.

Doctor Janice Lester loomed over him, a dangerous smile of triumph lighting her features. "Well, well! The invincible James T. Kirk! Not very formidable at the moment, eh, Captain?"

"Janice! How? I--I thought you were--"

"Dead?" she finished. "You would have liked that, wouldn't you? I arranged a little subterfuge. That was a nurse who was killed in the explosion and fire at the Canopus Three rehabilitation colony. I overpowered her and dumped her on my bed. When my sabotaged solartherm heating unit overloaded, she was burned beyond recognition. There was no way the authorities could identify her. They simply assumed it was me, and when the nurse turned up missing, they believed she fled to avoid charges of negligence."

Kirk stared in horror. "You killed her!"

"Why not?" Janice snapped. "She was only a woman, right?"

An involuntary shudder rippled down Kirk's spine, and he unsuccessfully tried to suppress it. He was in the hands of a madwoman! He'd have to walk on eggs if he was going to get out of this one.

"Janice," he began carefully. "Why do you continue to deny your own womanhood? You were a great scientist, accepted as an authority in your field--by both men and women! But you can't accept your own worth because you're ashamed you're a woman, and that an accident of birth somehow makes you inferior. Why?!"

She froze. Very slowly and deliberately, she turned to Sifrin, who now stood silently, motionless as an android that had been deactivated. "Michael," she said sweetly. "I'd like to speak with the good captain in private. Why don't you go to your quarters? I'll be along in a few minutes." She smiled seductively. "I just might have a little something nice for you, too!"

Sifrin's face lit up, its expression of misery instantly replaced by one of raw, animal lust. He hurried out of the chamber.

As soon as the door hissed shut, Janice struck. She rained down a flurry of blows to the helpless Kirk's head, showering him with a screaming torrent of obscenities. Kirk tasted the salt tang of blood in his mouth. She hit home several times, and he was suddenly struggling to maintain a tenuous hold on consciousness. Just when it seemed he could hang on no longer, she stopped.

She stood panting, trembling with hysterical rage. "You bastard!" she spat. "I ought to kill you now! But I won't! My revenge will be much sweeter when I can inflict you with a pain worse than death! They can't trace the drug, and only formax can neutralize it. Think of it, Jim! You'll be a basket case! They'll write you off, put you in an institution somewhere, just like they did me! I want you to experience feeling like a trapped animal every day of your life, the way I feel all the time! You--such a swaggering macho type, the man of action--unable to feed yourself!"

She bent closer to his face. "And all the while you'll be suffering even more, because you'll know that just one hypo of formax could bring you back to normal! But you won't be able to tellanyone!"

He looked up at her through a red haze of pain. "Janice, why are you doing this to me? It can't change anything that happened in the past."

She laughed unsteadily. "Why?! We've been all through this before! You had me put in that awful asylum after the entity-transfer episode on Camus Two, when I failed to take over the Enterprise! I loved you, you left me! You robbed me of the chance back then for a starship captaincy!" She stopped, fixing him with an icy stare. "And there's one more thing for which you owe me, Kirk. Arthur Coleman, formerly an M.D. until you had him broken down in rank, was an orderly attending me at Canopus Three. He synthesized the psylocine serum for me. When the fire broke out, he thought I was still in my room, and he tried to rescue me."

She lowered her gaze, her eyes haunted. "All that was left was a pile of ashes they brought out in a body bag."

"I'm sorry," a stunned Kirk said into the silence that followed her outburst.

"Not as sorry as you're going to be," she said quietly. "You'll rot away. All those precious muscles of yours will atrophy from inaction. Your ship, all your friends, will be gone. Maybe I can't have a starship, but neither will younow! You'll be locked into your own private little Hell with no escape."

She produced another hypo. Even in his horror, Kirk noted that this syringe was coded red, while the formax antidote has displayed a yellow label. "You've just had the last lucid moments of your life, Captain. Goodbye!"

"No!"

He struggled futilely against the straps. Janice discharged the hypo, and he felt the creeping paralysis almost immediately. Kirk's cries for help quickly collapsed into a piteous mewling.

"The direct injection takes effect much more quickly than the solution mixed in a drink. You'll be totally incapacitated in less than a minute."

She watched his struggles grow more and more feeble. "Oh, and don't expect any help from Doctor Sifrin. Michael's behavior is totally under my direction. One night while he slept, I planted a couple of directives in his subconscious mind with a hypno-probe. Now he believes I'm the most desirable creature in the galaxy, and that he'll die if he doesn't have me regularly. He also believes he must obey every command I give him, because if he doesn't, I won't give him any favors--it is as simple as that."

She snickered. "It's easy to use a man's libido to control him, but it's disgusting to pretend I'm aroused by his clumsy attempts at lovemaking."

Janice examined Kirk's contorted body. Satisfied that the psylocine had taken full effect, she removed the restraints. "'Bye, Jim. Be a good boy and stay where you are. Tomorrow, Michael will arrange to have you shipped out to where you'll never bother me again." A mocking laugh floated back over her shoulder as she left the room.

The only sound in the otherwise deserted chamber was the frustrated sobbing of a Federation starship captain.

*****

Leonard McCoy angrily paced the floor of the briefing room, where Mister Spock had arranged a hastily-convened conference of the Enterprise's command grade officers. In attendance were himself, the chief medical officer, and Chief Engineer Scott.

"Damn it, Spock, it doesn't make any sense!" the doctor raged. He had recovered somewhat from his earlier ordeal. "If you go beaming down to Starbase unauthorized and unannounced, the first security officer who stumbles across you would have every right to just burn you down on the spot! You wouldn't even live long enough to be thrown into the brig, much less stand for court-martial--which I might add is what you would most definitely be facing!"

"Aye, Mister Spock! At least clear it through proper channels!" Scotty pleaded.

"Gentlemen, the success of my foray to Starbase Eleven's sickbay will be predicated upon the element of surprise. Were I to announce my intentions, the news might reach an individual who, in my opinion, would be determined to sabotage my efforts." The first officer swiveled his chair to face the bellicose McCoy. "Doctor, as you are a psychologist and a so-called 'student of Human nature', I am somewhat surprised that you failed to notice several inconsistencies in Doctor Sifrin's behavior."

"I--I was a little preoccupied at the time," McCoy grumbled.

Spock nodded. "Understandable. However, now that your emotions are somewhat in check, think back. Did not Doctor Sifrin seem most anxious to prevent the possibility of our achieving physical contact with the captain? Why? Also, if Captain Kirk's mind is so utterly damaged that he cannot so much as recognize us, why should our presence agitate him so? It is logical to assume that Doctor Sifrin is not being entirely truthful concerning the captain's condition."

"But the brain-scan monitor--"

"Could easily have been altered to register only spurious readings."

The dawning light of understanding began to flicker on McCoy's face. "They you think Jim didn't have a stroke!"

"But what then? Is he drugged? Why?!" Scotty's tone voiced his bewilderment, and his growing apprehension that Kirk might be in grave danger.

"That I cannot answer at present, Engineer. But I intend to find out." The Vulcan rose, collecting a phaser, communicator, and medical tricorder from the conference chamber's center table. "I will beam down to the captain's cubicle. If I can be alone with him for a brief period, I can achieve the Vulcan mind fusion, and attempt to solve this mystery."

He started to leave, but McCoy help up a hand, restraining him. "Spock, wait. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that Jim's mind really has been destroyed. What if your consciousness fuses with nothing? How will you get back?"

Spock was silent for a long moment. It was obvious that very thought had occurred to him. "I believe I have correctly analyzed the situation, Doctor. If so, that eventuality will not arise." He turned to Scotty. "Mister Scott, you have the conn again. Absolutely no one is to follow me down, especially either of you two gentlemen. Is that understood?"

There were slow, reluctant nods of assent from both officers and a grumbled comment from McCoy. But they agreed.

"Good. Your concern for the captain is admirable; however, the emotional displays that accompany such concern would only hinder the solution of this problem."

McCoy looked as though he were about to have an emotional display of his own, but an uplifted, quizzical Spock eyebrow stopped him cold. The faintest spark of amusement glimmered in the Vulcan's eyes. He addressed Scotty again. "I believe there is one last item I require before I leave, Engineer..."

*****

Something was wrong. Call it feminine intuition or whatever you wanted, but she could sense it.

Janice Lester sat bolt upright in the bed. She peered into the darkened corners of Sifrin's bedroom as if she might discover the source of her uneasiness lurking there. A fine sheen of perspiration coated her naked body, and she shivered in the chill air.

Kirk! It has to be something to do with Kirk! She had tried not to underestimate the resourcefulness of her former lover. If he escaped her, they'd come to put her away again! She hurriedly beat down the almost hysterical surge of panic that welled up in her, breathing deeply, slowly allowing her pulse rate to drop back to normal.

That's better. Now she had to make sure everything was all right. She glanced over at Sifrin. He snored lightly, oblivious to the universe, an expression of pure bliss on his features. Janice smiled bitterly. Michael was one of those men whose post-coital activity invariably consisted of a long, deep sleep. He'd be no trouble to her.

She arose and dressed quickly, shrugging into a dark-blue jumpsuit-like garment. Reaching into a bureau drawer, she pulled out a phaser pistol and flipped the force setting dial to "kill." She would take no chances.

The corridors were dimly lit and deserted as Janice stealthily made her way to the sickbay. She paused, making a last quick scan for security guards, and then slipped inside.

The figure bending over the prostrate form of James T. Kirk was now unsteadily rising to his feet. He seemed to be shaking off the last vestiges of a trance and did not hear the cubicle door hiss shut.

"Just keep your hands away from that phaser, Mister Spock, and everything will be fine. I assume you've gotten all the information you need?"

Spock turned to face her. He nodded slowly, like a sleep-walker just coming fully awake. "Affirmative. I know what you are doing and how you have manipulated Doctor Sifrin. I will never understand the Human obsession for revenge."

Janice laughed harshly. "A simple emotion, Spock."

"Totally illogical."

"But totally gratifying." She stepped closer, the aim of the phaser never wavering. "If you know all of this, you also know that I must kill you now."

"Indeed. Will that not be rather untidy, however?"

She shrugged. "Who'll make the connection?"

"The command crew of the Enterprise is aware of my suspicion. If I am murdered, there will surely be an intensive search of Starbase Eleven. When you are discovered and identified, the rest of the story will fall into place." Spock slowly shifted his weight, tensing his powerful muscles for the spring.

But Lester caught the movement. "Go ahead, you pointed-eared freak!" she hissed. "It'll make it that much easier to burn you! I guess I'll just have to leave a little sooner than expected, and I'm sure Starbase Eleven will be kind enough to loan me the use of a shuttlecraft! By the time they notice it's missing, your precious captain and I will be beyond pursuit. They'll never be able to figure out which heading we took!"

Kirk stirred on the cot and groaned. In the split instant when Janice Lester glanced at the captain, the Vulcan exploded into a blur of motion.

He was not quite quick enough.

The shriek of the phaser and Spock's agonized scream rang simultaneously. The Enterprise's science officer slammed against the far wall and slumped to the floor, a thick wisp of smoke curling up from his smoldering uniform tunic. He twitched once or twice, then lay still.

And then Kirk screamed, wildly, insanely. He was sure to bring security down on her! She rapped him once, hard, on the top of the skull with the butt of the phaser. He subsided into semiconsciousness.

Janice rolled a patient's cart over to the bunk and, with a great deal of effort, transferred Kirk's limp body from the bed. She began to wheel him out of the cubicle when, suddenly, a figure loomed in the doorway. She screamed, startled. "Michael!" she yelped.

His expression was hardened, a mixture of horror, loathing and hatred. It was the look of a man who has just discovered that his nightmares are a cold reality. "You disgusting, murdering bitch!" he grated. "You killed the Vulcan, and now you're going to leave Kirk in a condition where killing him would be a kindness! Well, I won't let you do it! I understand everything now!"

She grabbed his shoulders, clinging desperately to him. "Michael, you love me, remember? You can't live without me! Come with me! What would I do if you leave?"

He shoved her roughly to the floor. "Whatever 'spell' you cast on me disappeared when I watched you cut down Commander Spock! You can save it for the authorities. I'm calling security!" He strode purposefully toward a wall intercom.

Janice leveled her phaser. Her voice was deadly. "Don't do it, Sifrin!"

He froze, but he didn't turn to look at her. "Go ahead, Janice. See if you can do it. I don't think even you have the guts enough to shoot an unarmed man in the back!"

She fired.

Sifrin dropped to his knees, agonized astonishment on his face. He clutched his stomach, trying to keep his intestines from oozing out the hideous, gaping exit wound the phaser had made. Then he pitched forward, dead.

She hurried now, shoving the cart out of the stasis chamber, pausing only long enough to deliver a savage kick to the head of Sifrin's corpse, as if killing him had not been enough to cool the anger she felt toward him for his interference. She had almost made it to the door of the sickbay when Kirk regained full consciousness. When he saw her, he began to scream again, in rage this time, feebly trying to kick at her in his torment. She had not strapped him to the cart. He overbalanced, falling heavily to the floor, where he flopped as helplessly as a beached fish, bellowing at the top of his lungs.

"Shut up! Shut up, damn you!" she cried frantically. She was hysterical now, realizing she would never be able to get him back onto the cart.

"All right, Kirk! You've made my choice for me! I'll have to burn you, too! I'll still have my vengeance!" She whipped her phaser, pointed it directly at his head, and--

The weapon dropped from her nerveless hand as viselike fingers clamped down on the juncture of her neck and right shoulder. The unconscious Janice Lester was eased gently to the floor.

Ambassador Sarek scooped up the phaser and tucked it into his wide ornamental belt. "It has been so long since I have used that technique under combat conditions that I feared I may have become, as you Humans so quaintly put it, Captain, 'rusty.'" He began to rummage through the pockets of the fallen woman's jumpsuit. "I was meditating in my quarters when I sensed severe mental disturbances emanating from this area. Since further meditation was impossible, I decided to investigate. Ah!"

He produced two hypos. "I take it your condition is chemically induced, Captain Kirk. If one of these is the antidote, blink once when I hold it up."

When Kirk indicated the yellow-coded sprayer, Sarek quickly administered the injection. The Vulcan ambassador gazed down at Doctor Lester's unmoving form as Kirk quickly recovered. "Who is this woman, Captain?"

"Ambassador." Kirk's voice was so choked and broken with grief that Sarek quickly glanced up, surprised. "I-I'm sorry, sir. But your son--my friend, Spock, is dead. She killed him."

Sarek's expression did not alter, but he was silent for a long moment. Kirk wanted to reach out, to grip his shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Something held him back.

"I-I think that the r-report of m-my death was p-premature, Father," came a weak, ragged voice.

"Spock!!"

Kirk was shouting, running toward his friend. He did not see the infinitesimally brief flash of relief on Sarek's face before the Vulcan mask was pulled back into place.

The captain embraced Spock and pounded him on the back, much to his first officer's chagrin and embarrassment. "Captain, please. I--I have not yet quite fully recovered from the combination of the phaser blast and the impact of striking the wall."

It was Kirk's turn to be embarrassed; he stood back, but his face remained wreathed in a grin. He tried to keep his hands at his sides. "Sorry, Spock, guess I got carried away! But, God, when I thought she'd killed you..."

"Indeed, my son," Sarek said. "I am pleased that you are relatively undamaged. However, though we Vulcans are a hardy race, you are the first to survive a full-force phaser blast at point-blank range."

It was then that they noticed the shining mesh network under the charred remnants of Spock's uniform shirt. "A small field deflector grid of Mister Scott's design," Spock said shakily, indicating his metallic undergarment. "It saved my life. However, I do not believe that a Human could have--Captain! Doctor Lester!!"

Kirk and Sarek whirled around in time to catch a glimpse of her as she bolted out the sickbay door. They had been so pre-occupied with Spock that they had failed to notice her regain her senses. Kirk stared after her, then hesitated, glancing back at his first officer.

"Go on!" Spock impatiently waved him away. "I will follow at my own speed."

Kirk was on her trail then, running like he had never run before, exhilarating in the simple act of running at all after the debilitation of his drug-induced paralysis. He had almost caught her when she ducked into the safety of the shuttlecraft hangar. She frantically disabled the lock mechanism, leaving Kirk to pound in frustration on the massive twin doors.

Grinning triumphantly to herself, Janice Lester rushed to the control board and locked bay operations into manual override. She hurried to the nearest shuttle; in her haste and in the darkness, she failed to see a maintenance warning sign on the side of the ship. She strapped herself into the pilot's seat as the huge clam-shell bay doors began to fold open.

Outside in the corridor, Kirk heard the turntable mechanism hum into life as it positioned the craft for launch. He turned and raced back up the hallway, almost bowling over Spock and Sarek as he rounded a corner. "She's got a shuttlecraft!" Kirk breathlessly explained. "I've got to get to Starbase Control to see if I can override, or at least talk her down!"

"Understood!" Sarek called after him as he bounded off toward the control room.

He burst into the operations area. On the main viewscreen, the shuttle could be seen arcing up through the night sky. An earnest young communications officer at the console tersely keyed his radio again. "Starbase Eleven to Shuttlecraft Tombaugh! You are in an unauthorized flight pattern! Please return to base at once!"

When he received no reply, he turned crossly to deal with the intruder who had barged into his inner sanctum. His jaw dropped. "Captain Kirk! Sir! We thought you--"

"No time for that now! Can't you abort the launch from here, Lieutenant?"

The young officer composed himself, all business again. "Negative, sir! Whoever stole the shuttle locked all operations on override. And the radio's on. The pilot's receiving but not acknowledging." His voice took on an edge. "Captain, the Tombaugh was in for maintenance on a faulty intermix valve! When she hits escape velocity, she'll blow!"

Kirk grabbed the mike. "Janice, this is Jim! Did you hear that? Your ship has a bad intermix assembly! If you try to take it up to speed, it'll explode!"

That got to her. A maniacal laugh range from the speakers. "You expect me to believe that fairy tale, Kirk? You can do better than that!"

The doors swished open, and Commodore Mendez stormed in, wild-eyed, his hair (rather, what was left of it) disheveled. A hastily-donned bathrobe covered his pajamas. "What in Hell is going on around here? There's a dead man in Sickbay, and--Jim!!"

He was ignored in the tension of the moment.

"Janice, you've got to believe me!" Kirk pleaded. "Cut back on your speed and return to base, or you'll be killed! Please!"

No answer.

Ambassador Sarek arrived, supporting a still-wobbly Spock.

"Ambassador! Spock! Will someone please tell me what is happening?" Mendez begged.

"She's maxing out, sir! Lining up for escape window!" the lieutenant exclaimed.

"Janice, stop accelerating! You're starting to redline!" shouted Kirk.

"Oh, no! Not the Tombaugh!" Mendez said softly, understanding now.

"Captain, perhaps the Enterprise..." Spock suggested.

Kirk looked hopefully at the communications officer, but the young man shook his head. "Negative, sir. Enterprise is at the opposite leg of her orbit. She won't pass over us for another eight minutes or so." He glanced at his instruments. "She's not slowing, sir. She'll reach critical in fifteen seconds!"

All eyes were helplessly glued to the screen now; they could do no more.

"Janice!" Kirk whispered. "Good Lord, no!"

It finally hit her. "Oh, my God! You weren't lying! Jim! Please! HELP MEEE--"

Her scream was cut off as the Tombaugh became a sudden sun, flaring into an impossibly brilliant fireball, blooming horribly brighter and brighter until its intensity overwhelmed the dampening filters and the screen went blank.

When it reactivated, only the stars were visible, shining steadily like multi-colored gems scattered on the black velvet backdrop of space.

*****

It had been a long, hectic two weeks, but now the conference was finally over. The delegates had duly decided to increase surveillance of the Romulan and Klingon treaty zones and step up starship construction. Then they had begun to disperse to their respective planets, scattering to all corners of the galaxy. Since their flight plan took them very close to Vulcan, Ambassador Sarek was being ferried home aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The frenetic pace had been good for Kirk. He had not had time to dwell on Janice's death, or the harrowing experience of his 'stroke.' But now, lying on his bunk in the darkened solitude of his cabin, the captain was alone to face the specter of his own private thoughts and personal grief.

A shave and shower had helped somewhat, but Kirk felt himself growing more depressed. It wasn't that he still loved her. That had been over and done with long ago. It was the sadness he felt for the end of a wasted life, a life that, for a person of her talent, could have been full and rewarding. Instead, Janice Lester had chosen to destroy her final years in a poisonous, insane quest for revenge against him. He mourned for the life that could have been hers, and, somehow, he almost felt responsible for her unhappy end.

The door buzzer chattered four times before he noticed it.

"Come," he said finally, in an almost inaudible whisper.

It was Spock. "Captain, the Enterprise is preparing to leave orbit. I was on my way to the bridge and thought I'd stop in."

He studied his friend closely. "If you'd like, sir, I can take her out for you."

Kirk shook his head. "No, I'll be ready in a few minutes. It's mostly the letdown following the end of the conference." He paused. "How do you figure it, Spock? For all her intelligence and ability, Janice could never reconcile herself to being a woman. It doesn't make sense. Maybe if I'd stayed with her back then, tried to love her instead of running out, everything would have been different."

"Jim," Spock said quietly. "No one can be responsible for the actions of another. It is not logical. You made the correct choice; you could not have stayed with her and remained the man you are."

Kirk smiled wanly. "Maybe so. But it'll be a long time before I can forget the sound of her screaming to me for help just before the shuttle exploded. If ever."

He got abruptly to his feet. "Time to go mind the store. I was thinking of something I read once on a viditape of Earth history. It had to do with a form of entertainment that flourished in the early Twentieth century, called Vaudeville."

Spock frowned. "I am only vaguely familiar with the term, Captain."

"Well, anyway, the credo of those performers was that, no matter what personal tragedy or sorrow befell you, it had to be put aside for the good of the production. They had a saying that was the catchphrase of their philosophy. It was 'the show must go on.'"

Kirk sighed, shrugging his shoulders almost imperceptibly.

"Well, Mister Spock, 'the show must go on.'"

He turned and quickly left his quarters.


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